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On Baptism

What does water mean to you? When I started here in Pauls Valley, I started pouring water into the baptismal font at the assurance of pardon. Someone asked me what that's about. I maybe briefly described some basic theology of baptism, but then said the intellectual explanations miss some of the point. "Let the symbols do their work," I said. Maybe that wasn't the most pastoral response, but I really meant it well.

In the Second Helvetic Confession, it says a sacrament is the Word, a sign, and the thing signified. Scripture is the word. Jesus was the Word incarnate and is the Eternal Word. In a baptism, both Scripture and Jesus are present. In baptism, water is the sign. The thing signified is . . . well, complex--as complex as water. Baptism signifies cleansing of sins like washing with water, sure, but that is almost too passive. It also signifies that we are active partakers of God's grace. To say we partake individually sounds like a good ole Baptist "believer's baptism," but we also partake of God's grace as a community. By the sign of baptism, we enact the fact that God has claimed us through no merit of our own. We, as a community, claim God's covenant for ourselves and for our children. Baptism is a sign of our membership in the covenant community; we are "engrafted into Christ Jesus," says the Second Helvetic Confession.

The "Directory for Worship" in our Book of Order, the constitution of our denomination, has beautiful language which describes our theology of baptism. "The sacrament of Baptism holds a deep reservoir of theological meaning," it says. I love that they use water / reservoir imagery to describe the abundance of meaning.

Paul in Romans chapter 6 says that when you're baptized, you're baptized into the death of Christ. For most of us Presbyterians, whether baptized as infants or adults, we were sprinkled, not immersed. Imagine falling back into water. When you're under water, you don't breathe; you can't see; there's no sound (well, little sound). It is a moment that is death-like. A friend in seminary survived a hurricane in the Philippines and has a much more destructive, even traumatic association of water with death. Perhaps this can be associated with God's immense power to put to death the powers of sin. But Paul continues, "we were buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life."

Water is the source of life. In drought, crops don't grow; without plants, nothing up the food chain can survive long. This powerful image was used in Amos chapter 8. In response to unjust practices in society, God said through Amos, "I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord." There is no drought of the words of the Lord among the baptized; when we are baptized, that is the opposite of a drought. We are PART of the water that gives life. We are PART of the Word itself. Like the woman at the well, when we drink the waters of baptism, we will never thirst again. The waters of baptism become in us "a spring of water gushing up to eternal life," says the Gospel of John in chapter 4.

For me, Psalm 1 is an amazing piece of poetry. The one who meditates day and night on the Word of God is like a tree planted by streams of water. This lines up water with the nourishment we receive from the Word of God. When I imagine that tree, I imagine it full of the newest, almost-yellow-spring-green, tiny tender leaves. It is beautiful in its newness of life and thick with an abundance of leaves. I know that in a real tree, the fruit comes later, but this miraculous tree is full of new leaves AND mature fruit. Paul said we could walk in the "newness of life." When we are part of the living waters by the Word, we are not just alive, we are newly alive, and on an ongoing basis, we are always newly alive. The leaves of our lives are tiny, tender, lush, thick, and almost-yellow-green always. Our connection to Jesus Christ through baptism means we are always bearing fruit effortlessly. We are fed by THOSE streams of living water.

What else does water mean to you? I think of tears of grief and am comforted by Christ grieving with us; Jesus was baptized like us, and Jesus wept at loss like us, and Jesus weeps now for us when we grieve. I think of a waterfall at my favorite place in North Georgia and am awed by the thundering power. I think of an angry swollen river that makes me slow down and tread carefully on a hike as I cross it. I think of a gentle rain--the kind of rain you don't even bother running from on a summer day, and you just let the rain soak your clothes to the bone and keep enjoying a stroll, the kind of rain that brings peace to your soul from the sound of drops on leaves and drips in gutters.

The ocean is deep and, often in popular writings, a symbol for God's love. When we are baptized, do we become a drop of water incorporated into God's love? or are we some sort of marine life in the ocean, a part of the oceanic ecosystem of God's love? Psalm 104 says that God made the seas so that the sea monster, Leviathan, would have a place to play. Theologian David S. Cunningham imagines the trinity as a system of water, "the Source, the Wellspring, and the Living Water." The water in the aquifer and the water bubbling up at the spring and the water flowing away in a stream are all contiguous, but distinct. Are they all also connected to the ocean? to the clouds? When we are baptized, we are incorporated into the body of Christ in a similar way that a drop of water is part of the earth's water cycle. When we baptize someone, we welcome them into being a part of our community just as God welcomes us to be a part of the Body of Christ.

What I said at the beginning of this article was, "Let the symbols do their work." What I meant was, "let the Holy Spirit and the symbols of water in your life tell YOU what the pouring of water in the baptismal font at the Assurance of Pardon means. Then YOU can teach ME another meaning of baptism in the deep reservoir of baptismal waters.

Blessings in the name of God the Source, the Wellspring and the Living Waters,



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